Jury out in soldier's court-martial

A picture of New Zealand's top special forces soldiers in Afghanistan scavenging through discarded American military equipment they could use has emerged from a court-martial in Auckland today.

New Zealand soldiers picked up a truck from the American base at Bagram because the Americans didn't want it.
One witness said there was even a Chinook helicopter they could have flown away.

The court martial is considering 11 charges of theft against a Special Air Service soldier who is accused of selling Defence Force equipment to a South Auckland gun shop.

The soldier, who along with the SAS witnesses has name and rank suppression, denied the charges but admitted to one charge of storing a weapon, against rules, in his quarters at the Rennie Lines, the SAS headquarters.

The three-man jury this afternoon retired to consider their verdict which is expected to be announced tomorrow.

The soldier earlier today told the court he had spent US$15,000 (NZ$18,000) of his own money on personal safety equipment while he was deployed to Afghanistan.

Describing his role in combat as "anything up to close and personal", he said that to go into action he wanted more reliable equipment than what he he had been issued.

He said the equipment could have eventually been supplied by the military.

"It could have happened through the system but it hasn't happened yet," he told the court-martial.

"The enemy doesn't wait."

Much of today's evidence has centred on the way New Zealand soldiers could access an enormous dump of American equipment - excluding weapons and clothing - at the US Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office the Bagram airbase.

Witnesses said three designated New Zealanders were allowed to pick over the material in the area. They sent boxes of recovered equipment to the New Zealand SAS and regular soldiers serving in the country.

An SAS quartermaster told the court they got a truck, washing machines and assorted high tech weapon sights.

The quartermaster told of being posted to Bagram, a large American base in Afghanistan, and while there being given access to the equipment dump.

"It wasn't financially viable for it to be returned to the US," he said.

A store master told the court of what was available to take.

"The Americans were a funny lot, if they were missing a screw they would throw it away," he said, and noted that included the Chinook.

"If you could fly it out and sign for it, it was yours," he said.

The witness said they got better-quality charging handles used to cock their automatic weapons.

He said they also picked up JPoint sights, including models that the SAS soldier is accused of stealing.

The SAS soldier under charge told the court that when he arrived in Afghanistan his issued weapons did not have the upgraded handles.

"I took it upon myself to buy some more," he said.

He said that the earlier version that he was issued with was clumsy and gas for the weapon went into his eyes. As the charges were only about $70 each, he decided to buy his own.

"The enemy don't wait and I enjoy my eye-sight," he said.

He described himself as a "mad keen soldier ... keen to get among it".

He produced bank statements showing he had spent US$15,000 spent on gear and tactical equipment "for myself, for my job."

This included body armour, safety boots, lanyards and gear for travelling in helicopters.

In evidence superior officers praised the accused soldier.

"Good bloke and a trustworthy bloke," one witness said.

"He did the job - a good soldier."

Another said that in combat the accused soldier had conducted himself extremely well.

"I did not consider him a thief."

The accused soldier had recently been considered for promotion.